Banipal and Generation 56 by Margaret Obank

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I write this in the midst of utter turmoil around the world as ISIS/Daesh lashes out with its murderous, anarchic suicide bombs – a dinosaur in its death throes, teeth and tail thrashing randomly – leaving mourning, outrage and sorrow a daily experience.

Turmoil in Europe with its uncoordinated, unclear policies on the thousands of human beings fleeing war, killings and starvation.

And further turmoil in Europe after the UK’s disastrous and destructive referendum result to leave the European Union, threatening the break-up of the UK’s four countries and heralding a possible domino effect on the EU itself.

Banipal’s mission is to bring worlds together through literature, to initiate inter-cultural dialogue between the Arab world and other cultures, to make the world a smaller, better, more understanding and tolerant place, to knock stereotypes on the head and encourage people to tolerate and love difference, to retrieve from deep inside themselves a child’s innate curiosity and imagination.

I recall my interview with Adonis, back in 1998, and then this one in April this year with the New York Review of Books, where he said: “. . . in art there is no East and West. You see it in the paintings of Paul Klee and how he was inspired by Tunisia and Eastern Arabia. You see it in the paintings of Delacroix and how he was inspired by Morocco. When you read Rimbaud, you see that the best thing about Rimbaud is that he is not a Westerner; although he was born in the West, he was completely against the West. When you read Abu Nawas, or Abu al-‘Ala’ Al-Ma‘arri, you do not say that they are Easterners or Westerners. The creative ones are from one world, regardless of what country they come from or where they went. They live together beyond geography, beyond languages and nationalism, and they belong to the creative world of humanity.”

We have always said that literary translators are interpreters of human values when they bring literature from one language to another as they are not only translating language. They are the true peacemakers in this crazy, unrecognisable world, and I take this opportunity to salute the sixteen who worked on all the texts in this issue.

Banipal 56’s main feature is Generation ’56, presenting a number of influential Arab literators, all born in 1956, and all of whom grew up to become major beacons of modernity, intellectual freedom and creativity, and cultural initiatives, while the year itself is remembered above all for the Suez Canal crisis and the invasion by Israel, Britain and France known as the Tripartite Aggression: Ziad Rahbani is one of most prominent artistic figures in the Arab world, and particularly in his native Lebanon – a composer, pianist and songwriter, and an incredible dramatist of plays and sketches that pierce straight through to humanity’s essence every time. Publisher Hassan Yaghi, also from Lebanon, has an unstoppable passion for giving his readers great literature from around the world (“The novel is a fundamental tool for critiquing history”), and works that will “restore confidence in reason and ethics”. Poet and editor Nouri Al-Jarrah, from Syria but based in London, has founded a number of successful literary and cultural magazines, as well as having many collections of his own poetry. Publisher and poet Khalid Al-Maaly, now working between Beirut and Baghdad, is a daring independent voice from the Iraqi desert, publishing numerous important contemporary and classic literary works translated into Arabic, as well as those of Arab authors. Poet and editor Saif al-Rahbi, from Oman, is famous throughout the Arab world for both his modernist poetry and his quarterly Nizwa magazine. Translator Maia Tabet, from Lebanon, has lived a life immersed in a mix of languages and the passionate compulsion to “craft” a literary translation. Novelist, writer and university professor Habib Abdulrab Sarori, from Yemen, is a computer scientist and philosopher, who sees literature as “the wellspring of man’s creativity in its richest dimensions”. Amin Zaoui, from Algeria, is the author of nine novels, with a number translated into other languages. After directing Algeria’s National Library, he is now Professor of Comparative Literature and Contemporary Thought at the Central Algerian University. Finally, we managed to squeeze in Banipal’s founding editor and author Samuel Shimon, from Iraq, who, after getting Banipal going, established the popular Arabic website “For culture and tolerance” in April 2002, and in April 2013 founded Kikah magazine for International Literature in Arabic.

The issue opens with poems by Ahmed al-Mulla, a Saudi poet and film-maker, whose works are dramatic elegies evoking painful memories, and perceptive detailed images, written from an open mind and heart. After him, a touching story by Lebanese writer and journalist Raouf Kobeissi. Then a second poet and film-maker, the fascinating Safaa Fathy from Egypt who works tri-lingually in Arabic, French and English, and writes on the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, on loss, sickness and death, about necessary and deep memories that are forever surfacing. The novel of Palestinian author Rashad Abu Shawar discusses the issue of tolerance and how to oppose a backward-looking culture, through the setting of an acid attack on a young woman who was forced to leave her arranged marriage to a hard-line religious Salafist much older than her on account of his abuse of her. The novel champions women and their rights, their struggle against an “ignorant and hostile sexist society”, as the reviewer of his book notes.

The Sudanese Literature focus of the Spring issue continues with powerful prose by towering classic author, the late Tayeb Salih, with a memoir of an old friend; by Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin, a likely contender for inheriting Salih’s mantle, who writes that the novel is a “joint venture between me, as a writer, and the narrator, the reader, and the characters, whether one came before the other or the other way around”; by Kamal Elgizouli, an important Sudanese voice who is also an international lawyer – his central character Grandma Wardeh has a strange effect on everyone; by Hisham Adam, author of six novels, writing about a young man Kajoumi leaving home for Khartoum and discovering he has a worrying talent; and Bushra el-Fadil, who has a new slant on Animal Farm in which dogs take centre stage, since “Man was made out of the murder of crocodiles, woman from the murder of snakes”. And there are more works to come . . . in Banipal 57 this autumn.

The issue concludes with events, and book reviews . . . as in all issues, but this time we include many brief reviews. The platform for Arabic literature in translation is so transformed that there is a plethera of works in translation, a range of texts – an enormous turnaround since Banipal No 1 in February 1998.

Editorial Banipal 56